On September 30, 2013, more than 250 developers were called into a conference room at EA’s Tiburon studio. Only a few days before, EA had announced that it was canceling NCAA Football, the venerable series of college football games that had been around in one form or another since the days of the Sega Genesis. While many members of the NCAA Football team would shift over to Madden NFL, many others would lose their jobs.
It was the culmination of a saga that extended at least as far back as 2009, when a former UCLA basketball player named Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA, Electronic Arts, and Collegiate Licensing Company [CLC] for using thinly-veiled versions of real-life players in their games. The tipping point came when the NCAA ended its partnership with EA and several major programs pulled their licenses. A few months later, EA pulled the plug on NCAA Football.
Sports games have moved on in the years since, leaning more and more heavily on microtransaction-driven Ultimate Team modes. In such an environment it was difficult to imagine NCAA Football ever making a comeback, not the least because it would open up the issue of player likenesses all over again. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what’s happening. Earlier this week, EA confirmed that the series would be returning as EA Sports College Football, losing the NCAA Football license but retaining what is expected to be a hundred or more Division 1 licenses.
It’s a big moment for the sports fans who have been pining for the series for several years now, and it’s an opportunity for EA to win back some much-needed goodwill. But while most of the franchise’s existential questions seem to have been resolved, there are still some sticking points.
The myth of amateurism
To understand why NCAA Football died in the first place, it’s important to understand one of the key conflicts at the heart of college sports. The NCAA has long held that college athletes are by definition amateurs, and therefore cannot profit in any way from their status as student-athletes. The obvious hypocrisy is that,college football coaches are frequently the highest-paid public employees in states like Alabama, where “Roll Tide” doubles as the unofficial state motto, and the NCAA profits handsomely from player labor through everything from jersey sales to memorabilia.
It was because of these rules that EA was unable to include real college stars in its games. Its solution was to use randomly-generated athletes instead, with “QB #15” substituting for real-life players like Tim Tebow. O’Bannon, who had starred at UCLA before washing out of the NBA, was among those who realized that the players in games like NCAA Basketball 09 bore a suspicious likeness to real-life college greats.
"You could play the '95 Bruins. It didn't have my name, but it had my number, left handed, it looked like me,” O’Bannon told Yahoo Sports in 2009. “It was everything but the name. My friend kind of looked at me and said, ‘You know what's sad about this whole thing? You're not getting paid for it.' I was just like, ‘Wow, you're right.' It just kind of weighed on me.’”
O’Bannon subsequently became the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit representing every Division 1-A football and basketball athlete. The lawsuit encompassed not just video games, but everything from commercials to DVDs. Along the way it became something of a cause célèbre, highlighting all the ways college programs take advantage of student-athletes, then cast them aside when convenient.
What finally killed NCAA Football
As the O’Bannon lawsuit wound its way through the courts, EA continued putting out NCAA sports games, albeit with changes. Classic teams, up to that point a series fixture, were quietly dropped. NCAA Basketball was discontinued in 2010, with observers blaming the decision on a mix of poor sales and the lawsuits making the series more trouble than it was worth.
The truth was that EA badly wanted real college players in its games. For proof, look no further than NCAA Football 13 and 14, which featured Robert Griffin III and Denard Robinson respectively. Both players were already in the NFL when their respective games were released, but their time at Baylor and Michigan was still fresh enough in the collective memory that EA was willing to put them on the cover of their video game. In fact, EA was so keen to have real-life players in its games that it actually coded them into March Madness 2008 in order to “calculate the correct stats,” then removed them from before release.
A key workaround was EA’s custom rosters. Every year the NCAA Football community would come together and diligently insert every real-life athlete into a roster file, which would then be downloaded by fans. The feature further undercut EA’s argument that the rosters were randomized and the likenesses were coincidental.
By July 2013, the NCAA had enough. It ended its partnership with EA in a tersely-worded statement, “We are confident in our legal position regarding the use of our trademarks in video games. But given the current business climate and costs of litigation, we determined participating in this game is not in the best interests of the NCAA.”
The departure of the NCAA wasn’t enough to kill the series outright, since EA could still negotiate with individual conferences and schools, but it did put it on the shakier ground. Soon after, the Pac-12, Big 10, and SEC all announced their intention to pull their licenses from the soon-to-be-retitled EA Sports College Football.
Kotaku’s Owen Good wrote less than a month before NCAA Football’s demise:
Schools are leaving because, on the whole, EA Sports may pay millions in royalties from this game but to an individual university, the money isn't that eye-popping, certainly next to the liability of a lawsuit. EA regularly paid the NFL Players Association—not the NFL—$30 million for its license to a much more valuable product. If 125 colleges combined command half that amount it comes to $120,000 per school. Yeah, bigger schools make more, smaller schools make less, some schools have their own deals. ("On a per school basis, it isn't much," a former executive on this series told me by email. "I'm sure it was NOT equitable.") Most universities are in this because the game makes them look good and it markets them to younger audiences they aren't yet reaching, whether they are fans or potential applicants.
In September 2013, EA announced that the series was going on hiatus.
We have been stuck in the middle of a dispute between the NCAA and student-athletes who seek compensation for playing college football. Just like companies that broadcast college games and those that provide equipment and apparel, we follow rules that are set by the NCAA – but those rules are being challenged by some student-athletes. For our part, we are working to settle the lawsuits with the student-athletes. Meanwhile, the NCAA and a number of conferences have withdrawn their support of our game. The ongoing legal issues combined with increased questions surrounding schools and conferences have left us in a difficult position – one that challenges our ability to deliver an authentic sports experience, which is the very foundation of EA SPORTS games.
EA agreed to settle the O’Bannon lawsuit that same day, ultimately paying out an average of $1,600 per player for a total of $60 million. The saga that began with a former college basketball player discovering his likeness in a video game was over, and it had taken down both of EA’s college sports games in the process. Or so it seemed.
Why EA is reviving College Football
NCAA Football’s cancellation instantly imbued NCAA Football 14 with a sense of dewy nostalgia. Operation Sports named it the third best sports game of the decade, behind only NBA 2K11 and Rocket League. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prices on the secondary market exploded, perhaps because fans were looking for something comforting and familiar to play. Even announcer Kirk Herbstreit complained that O’Bannon “took the game away from us.”
It inspired strong feelings within Tiburon as well. Former NCAA Football and Madden NFL Creative Director Rex Dickson, who departed the studio in 2018, made no secret of his affection for the series. More recently, Madden NFL 20 and Madden NFL 21 have included college licenses, which according to EA received positive feedback.
The reality was that NCAA Football 14 was fine. It was inflicted with many of the same issues that dogged Madden NFL around that time—glitchy multiplayer and a surfeit of bugs chief among them—and fans consistently grumbled about the lack of year-to-year changes. Its greatest strengths were its deep career mode, replete with fully customizable conferences and upgradeable coaches, and Road to Glory—an entertaining career mode that let players play through high school and into college. The high schools themselves were fully customizable, leading to creative fans turning them into Pokemon Leagues among other entertaining themes.
Over time what NCAA Football represented became more important than its relative strengths and weaknesses. It came to embody the pre-Ultimate Team era, when career modes like Road to Glory were perceived to be more of a priority. NCAA Football was never released on the PS4 or Xbox One, so it remained pristine, largely untouched by the troubles that would plague sports games in the years to come.
Thus, it was an easy call for EA to bring back NCAA Football if it could. And sure enough, the internet reacted with joy.
Some sticking points remain
In reviving its college football series, EA must once again face some of the previous sticking points that forced it into hiatus in the first place. The largest of them is that players still aren’t allowed to profit from their likenesses, meaning that EA can’t include them in the game. EA has communicated that it will go forward with generic players if it’s not possible to include real ones, but that would seem to put it right back where it was before.
One notable difference is that the temperature around the issue seems to have cooled somewhat. While the NCAA is still keeping its distance, the schools and the conferences seem to be back onboard. EA is currently in the process of negotiating the use of the uniforms, mascots, traditions, and names for more than 100 teams in the FBS, according to ESPN. Even the lawyers representing the players in the O’Bannon lawsuit admitted that it was never their intention to actually kill off NCAA Football.
On the state and federal level, lawmakers are considering whether to allow student-athletes to form a union. When a Maryland football player collapsed and died in 2019, legislation was proposed that would allow athletes in the state to organize and begin collective bargaining. Meanwhile, California, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Colorado have all passed laws allowing student-athletes to profit off their likenesses. The NCAA is set to introduce rule changes of its own later this year, with the caveat that athletes won’t be able to enter arrangements that conflict with existing school sponsorship agreements.
All of this should give EA Sports College Football enough room to maneuver without running afoul of major class-action lawsuits. When it finally launches a couple years from now, the college football landscape is apt to be vastly different, with individual stars being empowered to negotiate appearances in the game while randomly-generated characters stand in for lesser-known players. At that point the question will be whether it’s ethical to feature student-athletes in Ultimate Team, a mode that functionally encourages gambling. If EA leans as hard on Ultimate Team in EA Sports College Football as it does in its other sports sims—and there’s no reason to suppose that it won’t—the mood around the series will sour in a hurry.
But whatever form it ultimately takes, it’s becoming more and more likely that at least a few real-life players will feature in EA Sports College Football. In the short-term at least that’s a win for EA, who get to feature real players, and it’s a win for the students, who will finally get paid.
One way or another, it will be a while before we actually get to play EA Sports College Football. Even with existing technology, it’s an enormous amount of work designing new modes, building a brand-new presentation, and creating bespoke replicas of dozens of real-life teams. Every indication is that it’s very early days for EA Sports College Football—so early that the most basic choices are purportedly still up in the air. The best case scenario would seem to point to a Summer 2023 release at the absolute earliest.
Still, where NFL 2K, MVP Baseball, and yes, NCAA Basketball have all faded into history, EA Sports College Football unexpectedly has new life. By sports game standards that counts as a happy ending, at least for the time being. Hopefully EA makes the best of its rare second chance.